Driving into Tallinn from its tiny airport is like hurtling back through time. The outer ring of Estonia's capital is grim Soviet high-rises. The inner ring is 19th-century buildings of wood. The center is stone—one of the great medieval walled cities of Europe. I first walked into Old Town on a bitter-cold night last Christmas, through an ancient stone gate, up echoey cobblestone streets, and into the huge Raekoja Plats, or Town Hall Square.
On one side rose the floodlit stone facade of the only surviving Gothic town hall in northern Europe. On the others loomed the silhouettes of steep-roofed medieval houses. In the center stood a blazing Christmas tree. Electricity has replaced torchlight, but little else seemed to have changed since Christmas night 1404, when the town hall's last stone was put into place and the town fathers—German burghers, lording it over their Estonian serfs—rejoiced.
The breakup of the Russian empire has altered our basic idea of Europe, reminding us of ancient migrations, unlikely peoples thrown together, blood feuds never resolved. Nowadays there's probably no cleaner, safer, or stabler vantage point for understanding the upheaval than the new country of Estonia.
On August 20, 1991, Estonia, a puzzle piece on the Western edge of the vast jigsaw of the USSR, declared its independence. Latvia and Lithuania, the two pieces beneath, followed in short order. In Moscow at that moment, Yeltsin was standing on a tank, facing down a fascist coup. But the three little Baltics, so named because they each have coastlines on the Baltic Sea, risked independence with a certain calm: they'd already had practice being countries. During the breathing space between the two world wars, while Russia and Germany were laid low, they'd struck for independence. Then Stalin gobbled them up again.
Today the Baltics are leaping into capitalism. And Estonia, well situated four hours south of Helsinki by ferry, is prospering the most. Signs of progress abound in the lush, flat, coastal countryside, but nowhere more than in Tallinn's Old Town. American jeans, Italian shoes, and Estonian furs fill the windows on the main streets. Courtyards disclose little shops crammed with local handicrafts. Medieval doorways lead to vaulted cellars transformed into stylish cafes with furniture you wouldn't be surprised to see in Paris. There's something fresh about the whole thing. Did everyone rush home last night and learn English?
In truth, they don't have to look further for models of capitalism than the stones at their feet. In medieval times their city, then called Reval, was a member of the Hanseatic League, a federation of Germanic city-states, which controlled commerce in the region and monopolized trade with Russia. Fur, honey, and wax passed through Tallinn's gates on their way west; cloth, salt, herring, and beer came back the other way. Today the warehouses in which these goods were stored, the houses of prosperous traders, the cottages of the stone-carvers who made the houses, the guildhalls of the builders who planned them, and the turreted stone churches where everyone worshiped are all on display in Old Town.
Tallinn is an ideal place to grasp the dynamics of a medieval town. Toompea Hill, with its views of the battlements, was once the domain of German bishops and landowners. But beneath, among the passageways that swirl around Town Hall Square, everyone rubbed shoulders. "I toll alike for master and mistress, for manservant and maidservant, and no one can reproach me for that," is inscribed on Tallinn's oldest bell, hanging in the stone tower of the Church of the Holy Spirit. The church is wedged into the gremlin-scale White Bread Passage; across the street is a tiny cafe with windows glowing yellow.
There are medieval towns in Italy, France, Greece, and Spain, but thanks to the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney, the Middle Ages of our childhoods is Germanic. In Tallinn, the silhouettes of steep roofs and the views through archways leave visitors with a haunting sensation of the familiar.
Oddly enough, 40 years of Soviet rule have only deepened the illusion. The Soviet regime put a high value on preserving old culture, so exhibits in historic houses and museums are carefully labeled in Russian and Estonian. Indirectly, the Soviet regime helped Tallinn's age-old crafts industry survive. For people in a backward economy, knowing how to knit, weave, carve, and sew was crucial to the quality of life. Along the way, Estonians pegged this handiwork to their national identity. That's why a shopping-minded tourist can have a heyday: the linen tunics, leather pouches, and carved wooden knives for sale today aren't just souvenirs; they're talismans of a people.
Moscow's benign neglect, however, did not extend to hotels, where the scene is still a bit bleak. Yuri Averin, the father of a Russian friend, drove me in his old Lada to see one option, the Pirita, three miles east of Old Town. Put up by the Soviets for the 1980 Olympics, the Pirita is concrete and spartan, but it's right on the beach. A room costs 630 Estonian krooni a night, or $50—Averin's monthly pension. He was a captain in Russia's merchant marine, and later a teacher at the naval college. But he was forced to give up his post to an Estonian national, and at 55 he has nothing to do.
The Russians in Estonia—about 30 percent of the population—are nearly invisible these days. The only Russian restaurant is hidden away blocks from Old Town. The Soviet Unknown Soldier's eternal flame was put out by vandals and never relit. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral harbors mournful crowds on Sundays.
There's some injustice here. Stalin hauled off thousands of Estonians to the Gulag, and the Russians who remain in Estonia seem to be doing penance for it. Abandoned by the Soviet government, they are a forgotten, unrepentant postcolonial population.
As we drove away from the Pirita, Yuri Averin glanced back, and his eyes shone briefly. "We used to come dancing here," he said, "We were so happy in this place when we were young."
His loss is a gain for us, the encroaching army of vacationers from the West.